The Unbearable Lightness of Seeking
In Sharon Spiegelman, the protagonist of Allegra Goodman’s second novel, Paradise Park, we’re presented with a type familiar to just about everyone who grew up in the 1970s: the spiritual dilettante. You may remember her, gliding through the haze of those years: She was the hair-down-to-her-hips summer camp counselor with the bright, determinedly naïve smile; she was the fired-up president of the high school ecology club; she was the one at the rock concert who’d hand a stranger a joint, find out he’d read Siddhartha, too, and end up making out with him during “Freebird.” She had a vague but powerful urgency toward the aura of all things spiritual — was in love with the word “spiritual,” in fact, not to mention “aura” — and it never surprised you to learn, as you grew older, that she had gone off to this ashram in Oregon or that EST training in California, or that she was working in an organic juice bar and teaching Yoga in an adult education program. For her, enthusiasm in the modern sense meant the same thing as enthusiasm in the original sense (from the Greek en-theos: having a God within). Yet she was totally indiscriminate about what excited her, a hapless religious mess who somehow survived bouncing from one enthusiasm to another by virtue of a boundless optimistic energy (aka American naivete, aka Life Force) that almost redeemed the silliness of her entire journey.
Sharon Spiegelman is that type of woman, and Paradise Park is the record of her comic religious odyssey. Goodman is a strong, confident prose stylist — limpid with description, cogent with characterization, funny, infectious, and able very quickly to establish intimacy between Sharon, who tells her story first person, and the reader. The way the irrepressible flakiness of Sharon’s voice dovetails with the “and then this happened, and then this happened” quality of her picaresque narrative has to count as some kind of triumph. (Sometimes it feels like The Adventures of Aggie March.) Though I got plenty tired of Sharon’s search, I never really got tired of her voice. Long after it became clear to me that Paradise Park didn’t have anything interesting to say about the life of the spirit, I still found enough spirit in the voice to keep going.
The problem with Sharon’s search — what makes it tiresome, eventually — is that neither she nor Goodman, I’m afraid, realizes that her spiritual search won’t ever go anywhere as long as she remains blind to her own narcissism. And Sharon, unfortunately, is blind as a bat this way. Throughout her twenty-year search, she never gets hold of the idea that the religious life might involve grappling with things like death, the suffering of others, or evil.
For her, it’s always about epiphanies, blissful momentary revelations, and the kind of neural excitement that makes her put exclamation points at the end of way too many sentences: “Prayer is about joy! It’s about love! It’s about expansion! If it doesn’t come as naturally as leaves on a tree, then you shouldn’t go at all!” This last sentence is an allusion to Keats, but my how diluted it is, and how it’s really about me me me.
Sharon’s paradigmatic religious experience occurs eighty pages into the book, during a whale-watching boat trip off the Hawaiian coast. A whale comes near the boat, “almost close enough to touch,” and
“It was as if the whole ocean slid back for an instant, the surface of the water sliding off and opening as that tail reached and tipped itself. It was as if the whole ocean was sliding open. And I saw something there. The world was big, not little. The place was deep. The sky swung back in liquid gold, the air mixed with the water. I saw something. It was a whale, but not just the whale. It was a vision. It was a vision of God.
“I was shivering, just in pure terror; just in shock — because all of a sudden I’d seen it — all the power of the world, all this presence and wisdom that wasn’t human.”
The rest of her search is not so much about re-connecting to that vision of vastness whose “presence” and “wisdom” she calls God, but about feeling awed and knocked out by something overwhelming and sublime. She wants to keep that ecstatic feeling alive, and whenever it seems out of reach, because, say, the Zen monastery requires her to shut up and meditate, or because the Hasidic sect she joins requires submission to all those rules in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, she gives up and runs off to try something else. Sharon is funny, but she’s a flake; she’s full of life, but she can also be full of shit.
At first, this search of hers is random: she hears about a Mind-Body-Spirit Exploration Seminar, and signs on; when the seminar leader grabs her breast, she splits. Then she becomes a born again Christian (Q: “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” A: “Yes!…Yes!…Yeah!!!…Yippee!”) When her feelings about that predictably go south, she drops acid for a while. Then she goes to a Tibetan monastery, and then she studies religion at the University of Hawaii. And then she… and then she….
And then she goes to Israel to study Judaism (and reconnect with an old boyfriend). Whereupon the novel starts to get some measure of spiritual focus, narrowing to the Judaism that Sharon begins to realize is in her blood, if not in her totally secular upbringing. She knocks around among Jews reformed and orthodox, finding occasional “Aha!” moments but always chafing against those damned rules that religions always seem to impose on the faithful. Eventually — we’re fifteen years down the road now — she connects with a group of Hasidic Jews (“transcendentalist Jews” she calls them in hopes that they’ll meld Mosaic Law and William Blake) and longs for an end to her restlessness. She finds a devout man, marries and has a child, but we get no sense that her restlessness is over. This wouldn’t be so bad if we felt that she had grown some during the last twenty years, but Sharon is remarkably set in her way of thinking, even stubborn, for such a free spirit.
At forty, she sounds almost exactly the way she does at twenty, as if she hasn’t really learned a thing. And her self-absorption, her inability to empathize or understand other people’s struggles, is amazing and telling.
Living at a Jewish school in Washington called the Bais Sarah Institute, Sharon listens to another woman complaining that “It’s like a prison here,” and thinks, “I really couldn’t imagine what her problem was,” though until she arrived at the institute, filled with wide-eyed hope, that was exactly the kind of thing Sharon would have said herself. A year later, living with a Hasidic family swarming with nine children and an obviously burdened mother, she barely lifts a finger to help.
Not that she isn’t called on her self-absorption, particularly by boyfriends. One “kept saying the point was to learn, not to get caught up in ego.” Another, more penetratingly, tells her, “I think you talk so much about your seeking and your spiritual growth you don’t actually manage to do any. I think you’re so focused on yourself you’re blind to what’s actually happening to you.” Would that Sharon had listened. Would that Allegra Goodman had printed out those sentences and taped them to her computer while she wrote. Goodman seems to have fallen so under the spell of Sharon’s good-sport adventuresomeness that she doesn’t realize what a shallow spiritual life she’s created for her — that Sharon’s search is a search for another Whale High.
The unbearable lightness of Sharon’s religious flight is brought home at the end of the book, when Sharon reunites with her parents at her newborn son’s bris. She’s shocked when her parents mention that they thought she might name her child “Andrew,” after Sharon’s brother who died in a car accident when he was eighteen and she was about thirteen. “This had never occurred to me,” she thinks. “And there were Mom and Dad, after all those years, still with their sorrow. How could they not feel it? I had never even realized a sliver of how they must have felt until just that moment.” Now, this isn’t a teenager talking here about those weird things called parental emotions; this is a forty-year old woman who’s been pondering religious faith — and presumably mortality — for fully half her life. And the kicker is that even now, Sharon has not a single word to say — Goodman has nothing to say — about how she feels about her brother’s death. She’s avoided it the whole novel, and doesn’t face it here either.
Is it possible to write a novel of religious search — even a comic one — and not deal with death or intense suffering? I don’t think so. Not unless religion is a mere matter of personal feeling, of “wows,” ecstasies, and blisses. Sharon Spiegelman’s desire to fashion a connection to the cosmos is more of an escape — through self-absorption — from her own suffering than an attempt to understand suffering. As sexist as it sounds, I keep wishing she’d have listened more to her boyfriends.